Half a century gone — just like that…and I never got to say a eulogy.
Sivan 21 (June 6 on the “goyish” calendar) is 50 years since my Dad, Pesach ben Dovid and Feiga (née Ellenberg) — later Paul — Sass was murdered in front of our home in Lakewood, NJ, upon returning from work at our store in Freehold, a little after 9 on Friday night.
His niece who lived up the street was among the first to find him and ran to get her parents (my dad’s sister and my mom’s brother) and soon thereafter another uncle (dad’s youngest brother who married mom’s youngest sister) arrived from our other store — he also lived up the street. We were the epitome of a close family in so many ways — and my cousins and I are biologically brothers and sisters with no “other side” of the family. Right behind him was my mom with my younger brother, who was 11 at the time.
The ambulance came and my father’s youngest brother held my dad as he took his last breath. I arrived at the hospital in a police car (I was 15 and camping with friends on the other side of town) and the cop told me my dad was in an accident. That ride was surreal. We pulled in to the emergency entrance — they were all there. My dad’s sister came to me and simply said he’s dead. My brother was wearing my dad’s brother’s jacket, and sobbing. My uncle (with blood on his shirt) had his arm around him trying to comfort him. My mom was a screaming mess. I wound up being given a sedative to calm me down.
There are a million details — probably more. People who drove in the middle of the night after the news broke on New York and Philadelphia media, leaving their families to come hold my mom, as she sat on the couch in our living room all night. The howling I heard from around the corner as I approached the home of my dear baba, Dad’s mom, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust to face this unimaginable loss, and never to recover.
The crime remained unsolved and I wanted to try to get on with life, as I was taught by my survivor family we must do. In Lakewood, I would always be “that kid” whose father was murdered. The tragedy affected all of us and the people closest to us — it affected the whole town — but I was his kid. As I went through life — off to college and beyond, I would struggle with what to say when asked about my parents and how my dad died. Telling the whole story was a conversation stopper. Once I told it, would I again be the kid/guy/man whose dad was murdered?
Life went on. My mom — words fail in describing her courage — was a pillar of strength… and she had lots of help. My brother and I (and our cousins) had already been raised by a “committee,” including our parents’ siblings, and that continued. Aunts and uncles and cousins and friends always there. But that night changed everything. My mom’s brother (married to my dad’s sister), who had returned to a higher level of observance several years earlier, decided to move to Israel with his family, which they did after Baba died in 1973. Only my mom’s youngest sister is still with us, but the bond remains strong and unbreakable, even though we all live very different lives.
Mom lived to 91, surviving many bouts of life threatening illness. I was with her, along with many of those closest to her, when she breathed her last — with a smile. Like Abraham, she was tested severely, but she had a good old age. She lived to see two grandchildren married, after which she told me that she was “not mad at Hashem anymore,” and she was confident that “Yiddishkeit gate nisht shtarben mit mir” (Judaism will not die with me).
Ah — but the eulogy for my dad!
After my mom died, I was distraught. A 60-something child of a 90-something woman, yet I was lost. I had spoken to her every day for years, and there was a massive hole. But suddenly, I would awake in the night and think about…DAD! He was there in my mind and my heart all the time. After months, I reached out to the Lakewood Police, who were unbelievably supportive and responsive. And with their encouragement, I contacted the local paper (Asbury Park Press) to try and generate leads. There were no new leads and no real hope for any, but at least I felt like we did all we could.
And then one day a note came from that local reporter who heard from a staff member at Yad Vashem. A family who helped save my dad’s family and my mom’s family (they hid together) was looking for him after losing touch in 1968, following 20+ years of my dad seeking them — and finally finding them not long before he was killed. They had no idea why the trail went cold until they saw the new article. We connected, and through tears related our stories. They had letters from my dad and we “heard his voice” for the first time in half a century. We have begun the process to get them recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations,” which they most certainly are, and we await that official designation. And as that process unfolded, I realized I need to eulogize my dad.
Life has been good — I have an extraordinary family and friends. I was taught well and I’ve been lucky. But Dad was buried that sad Sunday, June 8, 1969 — the first funeral I ever attended — and I now eulogize him as I did not then, and I have not (until today) since.
My dad was extremely smart — not book-taught, as he stopped school before age 14, but life-taught, and deeply curious. He read The New York Times cover to cover every day. He was tough — no way could he have survived Majdanek, a kidney disease, typhus, the forest in a bunker for more than a year, and the journey to Italy post war (he would not go to a DP camp in Germany after what they did to him and his people), the trip to the US, the factory work and so much more, unless he had a will of steel. He was loved — the Benedyk family who saved them were business colleagues who cared enough to risk their own lives and the lives of their children to save him and his family. He was loving — not a mean bone in his body, after surviving the worst kind of hatred and prejudice. He was proud — of his family, his people, and the life he made. He was a lifelong Zionist, who finally got to visit Israel in 1966, the fulfillment of a dream. He was a generous and caring friend. He was devoted to his mother, his wife, his siblings, his nieces and nephews, his surviving cousins, who were always treated as brothers and sisters, and his children. He and his amazing family taught all of us that while we must remember our past, no matter how much tragedy life may hand you, when you have the chance to celebrate, you take it. We pass that on to our family and friends and it guides us to this day and onward.
So, after decades of not wanting to be “that kid,” I am proud be the son of Paul (Pesach) Sass — a fine and decent man, whose life was tragically cut short, and whose memory deserves to be celebrated and honored.
Dad — you are mourned and missed. Your grandson and granddaughter, among others, bear your name proudly. Your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, your nieces and nephews and their children and children’s children will carry on and your legacy will continue. No longer will I avoid the story because I don’t want to stop a conversation by sharing how your life ended when you were senselessly murdered 50 years ago.
It says on my dad’s gravestone (like on those of so many other blameless victims), “Hashem yakum damo”– May God avenge his blood. I’m not seeking vengeance — only to have my dad properly remembered. May his sweet soul rest in eternal peace.